March 29, 2009

Coming into Lent's Home Stretch

As we come into the end of Lent, its time to renew our resolutions for the Lord and to draw closer to Him. One way of doing this is by renewing our efforts to love those who are closest to us, and this is best done with the help of prayer. This kind of goes with the traditional connection between prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Let me explain.

Prayer is bound to an authentic love of neighbor. Prayer that does not lead into the hearts of others remains immature and is inclined to selfish preoccupation. Love of neighbor without prayer cannot draw strength from God and is inclined to hubris. True prayer informs charitable works for others so that those needs much deeper than the merely material can be met. Such prayer is already in itself a supreme act of charity, a profound experience of mercy. It goes deep into the sufferings of others and suffers with them, even when nothing else seems to be possible to do.

Through prayer, sometimes by prayer alone, those in distress discover that they are not alone and that their existence matters. This is because prayer is essentially a movement of divine love, or at least a movement in response to such love, even when that love seems absent. It is also true, however, that sometimes prayer is not enough by itself. Sometimes prayer needs to be expressed in action - and this is especially true for those who do not know they are loved.

But prayer is not something purely subjective - it is rather inter-subjective by nature. I mean that prayer involves persons - not only me and God, but me God and neighbor. This is an aspect of prayer that comes in handy as we close in on the end of Lent.

St. John Bosco says it is not enough to love children, children need to know they are loved. What is true of children is also true of about everybody in our life. When we join prayer and love for others together, a question that I like to ask, "Lord, how can I let your love be known."

To be honest, the answer is not always clear when I ask the question. But when I find myself in a situation, what needs to be done becomes very clear. It is a matter of being attentive, of being vigilant about what the Lord is doing in a given situation.

Recognizing how to be an instrument of God's love for someone is exponentially easier when it involves someone we do not know. When it is someone we know, I find myself not as willing. This might be because people we know expect more from us, especially when we do not feel like giving anything. Quite often when an acquaintance or stranger is involved, their expectations are pretty low. Then, after one has given what one has to give, there is the safe escape. This kind of love, the love we can escape from, is not a great love.

Those who are dear to us demand a great love, that is why we do not like letting others get close to us. From those who are bound to us in love, there is no safe escape. The needs of the human heart are infinite and the greater its expectations, the more we will disappoint. Long after our hands are completely empty, I see those whom I love the most need more than I have to give.

This is a great place to be. It is the place where God calls us beyond our human limitations and into the greatness of his Love. God the Father wants us to love like the widow Jesus praises. So this characterizes the kind of almsgiving that goes with prayer and love of neighbor. While everyone else gives from the extra they do not need, Christ calls Christians to give out of their own need, like the widow. This means, He commands us to love beyond our human capacity to love. This transforming place is so very painful, but it is also our finest moment, the moment when we are most like God, when we image God perfectly. God the Father stands before us with empty hands because he has given everything to us in his Son. When love demands everything from us, we become the living icon of God the Father - for we too stand before him with empty hands.

How do we do this? When we have reached the end of our humanity, beyond which there is nothing more to give, what else can we do but go to prayer? Only through prayer can we go beyond the limits of our self-reliance to rely on the Lord alone. Prayer opens up the possibility of a new kind of love, a supernatural love - which loves beyond what our human nature can give. This is very humbling to experience. To allow this kind of love requires we create room in our hearts, space that can only be created through self-denial. This is where fasting comes into the mix. Here it is not only a fasting from food or abstaining from meat. This kind of fasting also includes fasting from what is comfortable for me to do, allowing myself to be pushed into those uncomfortable sacrifices others need if they are to know they our loved. Such sacrifice is impossible without prayer.

When we love with this kind of love, God is in control. It is Him, not us, His power, not ours. That is why our prayer must be constant. Prayer is an act whereby we rely on the Lord and draw our strength from Him, from doing his will. So this is the acseticism I propose for this home stretch of Lent.